The main differences between rich and less fortunate might be defined like this; in ancient Egypt the pharaoh was at the top of the ‘food chain’ and his family, noble people who owned land, and the priests came after. Scribes, architects and doctors were also well and skilled craftsmen also had many privileges.
Divorce was legal and the problems arising from it were usually when it involved property that had to be divided. Such as today.
Wine was a beverage of high society individuals and beer was intended to the people in general but rich people also drank beer...loads of it. People loved to drink, according to maxima written in the New Kingdom’s The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep, a vizier under King Isesi of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (c. 2414-2375 BC).
These functioned as advice and were intended to be directed to his son. There are several copies available today; the Prisse Papyrus dating from the Middle Kingdom, at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and two slightly different versions at the British Museum. Ptahotep explains why he wrote these; he reached old age and wants to live a legacy of ‘good sense’ instructions to his son. These are rules on how to be kind, just, peaceful, on how to behave in a right manner in general.
The houses built for the rich and powerful were obviously different from the ones built for labourers and farmers. The difference has two main concepts: materials and space. Wood was expensive in Egypt (the best one coming from Byblos – present Lebanon) as the Egyptian trees did not give any good wood to build nice furniture, so all furniture made of ‘good’ wood belonged to rich houses, owned by rich people.
|Wooden headrest, Glyptotek, Copenhagen|
As everything was built with adobe bricks, none of these buildings survived, and the most modest houses, form the poorest people, were built with straw, palm leaves and also some rudimentary bricks, so, it should been harder to resist the winds and sands of centuries.
Rugs from Persia, ebony and ivory pieces from African kingdoms, golden vases, jewellery and sculptures from Nubia, various precious stones and gold ornaments were some of the treats rich people could afford in ancient Egypt.
Different kinds of meat were available for the elite: beef, veal, antelope and gazelle meat, and wines were labelled with date, vineyard location and variety, as the tax assessors requested, such as the ones found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The poor ate mostly birds; geese, ducks, quails, cranes, and from the New Kingdom onwards raised their domestic poultry animals. Different fish from the Nile were consumed, though some were forbidden because of the myth of Osiris where he travelled along the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea while dismembered by his evil brother Seth. The fish were most frequently dried in the sun.
|Metropolitan Museum, NY|
Sweeteners were different too; rich used honey, poor used dates, left to fermentation.
Clothing. It looks like, from archaeological findings, that everyone wore tunics. Men wore them down to their knees and women down to their ankles. These tunics were made from linen, from the Flax plant, very abundant across the Mediterranean. Richer individuals had them folded as art depicts some with gold lines and designs. This, plus the jewellery and the headdresses made the distinction while on the street.
Shoes: sandals (ankh) were worn by everyone, the difference was that poorer people could only afford papyrus or palm fibre sandals, while richer individuals had their sandals woven in leather.
|Metropolitan Museum, NY|
Peasants and non-specific workers were at the bottom but not in the last place, servants and slaves were the last, at the bottom of the 'pyramid'. People working in mines and quarries were really asking for trouble, as diseases, physical strain and dangers lurked in every turned stone in the desert...Slaves working in rich domestic environments were the lucky ones as they were assured security, housing and food.
Many of these endured hard physical work and usually died young as we can see from the osteological remains found at Amarna site analyzed by Dr. Jerome Rose, which proved that people building those megalomaniac buildings for Akhenaton died young with severe bone lesions.
|Canelas Collection, Portugal|
Professions were usually hereditary, not chosen; a man followed his father’s trade and so on.
Scribes were the top people to look for regarding learning and teaching, the ability to read and write, done with the copying and recitation of texts. Not every child was able to learn how to read and write; this was restricted to those following the scribe profession.
A paradox: we can have hieroglyphic in our cellphones now...
Housing: the rich had nice villas with many rooms, interior gardens and plenty of space; the poor lived in the outskirts in small brick houses and they also had their lands outside the city with their agricultural productions.
An example of housing ‘for the poor’ were the villages expressly built for workers like the one at Deir el-Medina. Kitchens were built outside the house because of fires for cooking being hazardous to safety.
|Brooklyn Museum, NY|
Women had more freedom than their counter parts in Mesopotamia, for instance.
For leisure they practised many sports, hunting, fishing, wrestling, including chariot races (after the horse was introduced in Egypt), which might have been the cause of Tutankhamun’s death as said before. Banquets were also frequent in rich houses with dancing, drinking and maybe sexual activities included, same as today.
|Cypriot jars for opium transport, Penn Museum|
Crimes: high treason and attempts to the king’s life were among the top crimes to be punished in ancient Egypt. Robbing was attested for but homicides and other death crimes are not accounted for. Justice was Maat, the supreme balance against chaos, and everything in life had to be done accordingly, ancient Egyptians had their laws and ordinances. Viziers and judges were appointed by the pharaoh to decide upon requests for intercession.
Look upon him who is known to you like him who is unknown to you; and him who is near the king like him who is far from his house. Behold, a prince who does this, he shall endure here in this place. From The Instructions of Rekhmire, in The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt by Joseph Kaster.